Remembering a musical square in a field of paisley holes. Marty Balin passed away four years ago in Florida at the age of 76. The musical square comment, mind you, isn’t meant as an insult, but rather an acknowledgment that although he’s synonymous with the psychedelic-’60s and their erstwhile capital of San Francisco, he was always a bit different and more traditional than many of his contemporaries.
Part of that might be because he grew up as a child in Cincinnati, although he’d moved to the West Coast by high school. A bigger part of it might be that he was autistic; he was one of the first celebrities to have been identified as such and in his latter years he’d do a great deal of fund-raising for autism charities.
Balin started his solo career around the start of the ’60s, playing folk music in clubs in the Bay Area, and putting out two solo singles by 1962. A few years he co-founded the seminal hippie band Jefferson Airplane, and he wrote about half of their famous Surrealistic Pillow album, played guitar and shared the mic with the more famous Grace Slick. While the band veered towards the weird and wonderful of psychedelia, he always seemed to prefer a more conventional, folk-based sound, like the country-rocker “Volunteers” he wrote. He was with them at their famous Monterey Pop and Woodstock concert appearances, and also at the Altamont show, in which he was knocked out by a Hell’s Angel “security guard” while on stage. Not long after that, he quit the band. “After Janis’ death,” he says, referring to Janis Joplin and why he quit, “that just struck me. It was dark times. Everybody was doing so much drugs, I couldn’t even talk to the band. I was into yoga at the time…cocaine was a big deal and I wasn’t a cokie.”
After a few years and changes, he rejoined them when they became Jefferson Starship, and he shone on the big hits of that incarnation – “Miracles”, which he wrote and sang, and “For Your Love” which he also sang. However, ongoing tension between him and Grace caused both of them to quit about the same time in the late-’70s. Balin went on to write an obscure rock opera, Rock Justice, then put out a hit solo album, Balin, which contained two top 20 hits, “Hearts” and “Atlanta Lady,” both written by his friend Jesse Barish. He joined ex-Airplane mates Jack Cassady and Paul Kantner in the band KBC in the mid-’80s, but that didn’t result in much gold or platinum hardware for them. Not that he seemed to mind that much, he had by then made a comfortable living and enjoyed a family life and time painting. Painting was always a passion for him, and he was noted for portraits of other musicians.
He had heart problems in his last years and a botched surgery in 2016 left him with a myriad of health problems. No cause of death was listed for his demise en route to a hospital, but one has to expect it was somehow related to that event. Upon his death, Jorma Kaukonen of the Airplane wrote “had it not been for him, my life would have taken an alternate path I cannot imagine…it was a moment of powerful synchronicity. I was a part of it to be sure, but I was not a prime mover. Marty always reached for the stars and took us along with him.”